visiting a new church

Visiting a new church

What impression does your church make on visitors?  I have taught Introduction to Comparative Religion for the past 25 years at two local community colleges.  Each semester I assign students to report on a visit to a religious service of their own choice that they do not normally attend.  Recently I decided to publish some of the results.  Keep in mind this is not a scientific study, and the sampling is not random.

I have selected excerpts from certain reports which seem to be typical of the responses I have received over the years.  The services visited included a wide variety of groups, including Catholic, Pentecostal, Mormon, Baptist, and Jewish.  So, this is my impression of the way students react when visiting a religious event or service that they are not familiar with.  I have kept all actual names of students and religious groups out of the examples.

Here are the informal findings from the religious visits made during Spring, 2013: Introduction to Comparative Religion.  The responses are organized by general category:


Authenticity of the experience: “It was quite unusual for me because of the fact that they started off with testimonials but it honestly was really heart-touching.  Looking back makes me smile because I now remember nothing but happiness in my face as well as others.”  Ellie

“My overall experience was refreshing and reminded me that what is important is God and you can worship him everywhere.”  LaToya

“I really like how they got the children involved in the service.  They seemed to be enjoying themselves.”  Jessica

“As I went inside I was a little bit concerned that the leader might try to convert me, but I was wrong.  The people just talked about what they believe.”  Inez

Musical impact: “I have to admit I was a bit nervous because I had never gone to any church but my own.  I actually liked how the service began.  It was so energetic.  The service lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes and I have to say it was not bad at all.”  Matt

Beauty of the setting:  “The words about God (in the books) were lovely.  They made me realize that this faith was not that different from my own.  The young, hip (leader) brought out his guitar and led us in a song.  This was the high point of the evening.  Afterward we had light snacks.  At this time, many people came up to my friend and I and offered to help in case we had any questions.  That was a nice gesture.”  Melissa

“Before entering the building I was taken aback by its beauty. Located in the entry way was a huge statue that radiated with such beauty.  It was a wonder that such skill could be possible.  The inside was constructed with skill.  In the middle of the room was a huge dome surrounded by small stained glass windows.  Between admiring the blues and greens of the windows and the deep browns of the wood, I didn’t even notice when the (leaders) came into the room.”  Shauna

“I didn’t understand some of the strange symbols, but my curiosity was allured.  The people seemed friendly and the food was amazing.  I could have easily been converted.”  Ted


Non-acceptance of alternative lifestyles:  “I was told by my friend who is a member not to mention my tatoos or that I am gay.  I found that odd.”  Tina

Not knowing how to dress:  “The only thing that made me a little bit uncomfortable was the clothes I had on.  The women were dressed very conservative and they wore long skirts, but I had on dress pants.”  Martina”

I was told to dress up nice and not look like my usual self.”  Tanya

Not knowing what to do:  “I noticed there was a lot of repetitive prayers throughout the service and the congregation knew what to say.  For a visitor this could be overwhelming.”  Alex

Exclusivity:  “It bothered me that they kept saying they were the one true religion.  They didn’t use the Bible, but talked about the history of their church.  What I really took away from the experience is that church for them is more of a ‘hang out’ and that the real experience takes place at (another location).  Overall I found my experience overwhelming, confusing and a bit scary.”  Sharon

Feeling threatened by the format.  “The service consisted of the leader speaking about God’s words, but not reading from the Bible.  He looked like a regular person and seemed nice, but when he spoke it sounded like he was screaming at me.  Not long after he started people started making commotion and screaming really loud too.  The teenagers were not very respectful.  They had their cell phones out and just talked through the whole service.  At my church they would have been called out and told to show some respect.”  Maria

“My experience attending this service was alright, but I am not religious.  Would I go back?  Honestly, probably not.  I respect the people and their religion, but its just not for me.  I did enjoy the prayers and the love I could see around the room.”  Chelly

Using this survey

What impression does your church make on visitors?  Are they impacted positively?  Are they willing to return?  Would they say good things to their friends about your church?  You can use these responses from my students as food for thought as your church or group attempts to reach outsiders.  Dr. Michael Bogart